SJP event explodes into student lead protests against perceived anti-Semitic speaker
By Sam Doolen and Dalton Valette
Miko Peled, a Jewish-Israeli activist and author, came to Drew on Wed. Sept. 21 to talk about his book, The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, and his solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an event hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine. It was intended to be a standard informative speaker event but for those in attendance it quickly became evident there would be controversy.
Peled made a tweet stating “Then theyr surprised Jews have reputation 4being sleazy thieves. #apartheidisrael doesn’t need or deserve these $$” which, along with other Tweets saying “And I’m anti Semitic while ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions are happy these monsters with billions of $$.” His Twitter activity resulted in a cancellation by Princeton Committee on Palestine the day before he came to Drew. Student protesters quickly mobilized when Peled’s anti-Semitic tweets came to light. SJP posted on Facebook before the event that they were still welcoming Peled but did not stand by his remarks.
Upon arrival Peled was met by a small group of student protesters holding signs that read “Drew Stands Against Anti-Semitism” and “Hate Speech is Not Free Speech.” The protests were organized by individual students and not by any clubs or organizations.
One protester, Jake Levine, (’19) said, “There needs to be a differentiation between the actions of Jews and the actions of the state of Israel,” Levine said, “He crossed the line between anti-Israel and anti-Semitism.”
Peled seemed astonished by the backlash when he arrived speaking from the podium and saying the protests were “So absurd that it defies understanding” as well as saying “This anti-Semitism protest is nonsense.” Throughout, Peled minimized the impact of the Holocaust saying it “wasn’t a big deal,” said Israel was filled with “beggars” and commented on “those blacks in Baltimore” feeling the same persecution that Palestinians faced.
Peled spent the first 20 minutes of his presentation defending his tweet and clarifying that when he said Jews, he meant the state of Israel. He also said he was being sarcastic. The grumbling of various audience members made it evident that many in the room who’d come to hear him did not buy Peled’s explanation.
Student Government President Jared Sutton (’18) stood up and interrupted during Peled’s prolonged defense of his tweet to ask, “Do you plan to spend your entire speech defending your twitter account?“ Sutton went on to criticize Peled, reminding him that the Student Government paid $952 for a presentation on his book. Peled demanded he sit down, but Sutton did not wait for his response and stormed out of the room.
Sutton was quick to denounce Peled and confessed that while there had been a background check on Peled, no one in Student Life checked Twitter or Facebook until the day before his arrival.
“We spoke with Michelle Brisson (Associate Dean of Student Engagement) and nothing had been flared so we have to trust their judgment in the Office of Student Activities,” Sutton said. “We’ll be working with the Office of Student Activities to ensure that nothing like this will happen again.”
While SJP doesn’t have their own budget, they ad-hoced from Student Government to request Peled a week before the event. Student Government receives their budget from the ‘General Fees’ portion of students tuition.
When asked if Drew students, through their tuition, inadvertently paid for a perceived anti-Semitic speaker, Sutton said, “I wouldn’t say that’s a fair summation. We didn’t know about this information until yesterday. I would highly recommend looking at our own statement.”
Student Government stated they support the right to freedom of speech but they condemned “an event where students feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.” It did not specify that they condoned this particular event.
“As a huge supporter of campus life, we wanted to give people the opportunity to talk” Sutton said. “When we approved the funding we had no knowledge that anti-Semitic comments had been used. If that knowledge had been known, I would venture a guess and say that BOB would not have approved it.”
Later, Sutton stated that the perceived anti-Semitic remarks were made known only an hour before the Budget and Appropriations Board (BOB) approved the request by SJP and BOB had no before hand knowledge of the anti-Semitic views Peled shared on social media.
The rest of Peled’s presentation went much more smoothly and the protesters largely did not interrupt as they stood quietly in the back of the room. In the book, Peled describes the moral dilemma he faced in taking the house of an upper class Palestinian family who were only just before chased out of Israel by the newly formed Israeli militia’s. She could not bear the guilt of taking the house of another mother and declined the offer, contrary to many other Israelis at the time. He describes his life growing up in Israel as a zionist, his change of heart, and his travels into Gaza to see the squalor the Palestinians live in. He ended his talk with a call to boycott Israel and anything made from there as the words “Free Palestine” flashed on the projector behind him. The protesters were unimpressed.
SJP promised at the end of his presentation there would be a Q & A and once the floor opened up to questions tensions rose again. One of the first questions asked by a protester was, “Why didn’t you feel the need to differentiate between Jews and Israel?”
Peled seemed almost insulted by the question and said, “I know more about anti-semitism then all of you combined.” His tone quickly became defensive saying, “Israel has claimed to represent Jews. It’s not right, but it is the reality they created.” The protesters continued their questioning until an audience member raised their hand. Rachel Villotoro (’19). turned to the back of the room and addressed the protestors.
“I don’t think it’s fair to protest because it overshadows his talk about Palestine. He’s part of your own culture,” Villotoro said. Pearl Sutter (’18) said, “Just one thing, I don’t think it’s fair simply to associate people automatically based off religion.”
Villotoro responded, “You could have protest in a more respectful manner. He’s (Peled) coming here to educate you. You misrepresent the school. How does that make the rest of the student body look? You’re in the student government (indicating towards certain protesters) and you, I don’t want to say you, but you, are overeating you made this, your approved this. Why are you giving SJP retribution?””
The protesters shot back but were quickly silenced by SJP President Naeem Khan (’18). With the end of the Q & A, the presentation came to a close but not before one more awkward moment where Peled walked up the protesters in a grand gesture to sign one of the poster the protesters carried.
After the event, reactions were heavily divided.
Kelly Duddy (’18), who walked out said, “He was disrespectful towards Africans Americans, Jewish Americans, Native Americans, and all Americans on the whole. He inadvertently said minority groups are okay with being generalized.”
Rachel Tav (’17) posted on Facebook, “Friendly reminder that hate speech only hinders progress and does nothing to resolve conflict. Opening up a productive dialogue also means opening your mind and heart. Super disheartened and angered by the events of today at Drew but immensely proud of those who stood up to hatred.”
Assistant Professor Sangay Mishra exited the event and said, “What happened in there?”
Vice President of Campus Life and Student Affairs Sara Waldron said, “There was serious talks about what what he was saying, what inflammatory things he was saying, and we decided we wanted an open dialogue on the college campus…Neither I nor anyone at the university is going to tolerate hate speech. I think that’s the big thing we will not condone that sort of inflammatory speech.”
Associate Professor, and academic adviser for SJP, Jinee Lokaneeta said, “I do think it’s important to have open discussions about contentious issues. SJP actually invited the student protesters in so long as they were peaceful and it’s good that the student body responded to this while also being engaged with two sides of an argument while also…eating good food!” She said while enjoying some food provided by SJP. She did say, “I was expecting more discussions about his book.”
Khan summed up the event saying, “It went well.”
Presently, Drew University has issued no formal statement about Peled, the event, or his Tweets.